How Broadway Musicals Made a (Long-Overdue) Shift Toward Female-Artist-Focused Storytelling

Morissette,  Summer, Turner and Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle.
Josue Evilla

From left: Morissette,  Summer, Turner and Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle.

Two years ago, director Michael Mayer began working on Head Over Heels, a musical juxtaposing a “Shakespearean-type romance” storyline with the punky pop songs of groundbreaking girl group The Go-Go’s. But it wasn't until recently that he realized what made it truly radical.

"It really is a feminist story,"  says Mayer, who also directed Green Day’s American Idiot and Spring Awakening. "It’s about how to transcend the patriarchy as it has been handed down to us and as we’ve blindly accepted it. And there’s something about these songs by this group of amazing women, letting that be the voice of the story -- it feels germane and of the moment."

Broadway musical creators have long turned to iconic artists’ catalogs and life stories as raw material, but from The Who to The Four Seasons, those artists have more often than not been male. Finally, that trend looks set to change in a big way. In the wake of the well-reviewed Carole King and Gloria Estefan bio-musicals Beautiful and On Your Feet!, respectively, in addition to the hits Waitress and Kinky Boots (with original songs by Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper, respectively), the coming year will bring a slew of new shows driven by the stories and songs of female artists to Broadway, the West End and beyond.

“I do think producers are opening those doors,” says director Diane Paulus, who shepherded Waitress to Broadway and is now helming Jagged Little Pill, based on Alanis Morissette’s smash 1995 album and premiering at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in May. “In both cases you have these amazing female artists, and they’re now being allowed space inside the musical theater for their voice.”

Pill deals with themes more complex than traditional musical fare -- “It’s about swallowing hard truths and being happier choosing to face reality,” says book writer Diablo Cody -- as do the other female-artist-centric shows in the works. According to director Phyllida Lloyd, one of the trio of women in charge of TINA: The Musical (premiering on the West End in April), Tina Turner initially “didn't particularly feel she needed a musical about her life.” But she was in part convinced by seeing how the show could give women in abusive relationships a message of hope.

“It couldn't be more timely in the light of the events of the past year,” says Lloyd of the show, which picks up its narrative in the years of Turner’s financial struggle, and then rebirth, post-divorce. “You’re seeing her being beaten up onstage and thinking, ‘Why is nobody stopping this?’ Frankly, she worked her way out of hell.”

At their core, these shows aim to show these artists as much more than mere hitmakers: take Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which stars three actresses representing different moments and facets of Donna Summer’s life. “Being a disco singer was just one of many things she did,” says director Des McAnuff. “But particularly in her collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, they created this universal approach to dance music that has had a huge influence on pop culture.”

With more shows in development, including The Cher Show and a Dusty Springfield musical, Mayer sees theater’s new focus on female acts as indicative of a wider transformation. “There’s such a history of the Broadway musical glorifying a certain sort of victimhood in leading ladies,” he says. “It’s great to see us getting beyond that. Women are finally getting to be in the driver’s seat.”

This article originally appeared in the March 10 issue of Billboard.